Performance vs. Proficiency: Why I choose Proficiency (or at least NOT Performance)

I used to be all about Performance Tasks/Assessments, but that was when I had things all backwards about practice. You can read ACTFL’s Performance Descriptors for a more detailed explanation of the difference between Performance and Proficiency, but here are my thoughts below each comparison found in the ACTFL document:

(Perf) Based on Instruction: Describes what the language learner can demonstrate based on what was learned
(Prof) Independent of specific instruction or curriculum: Describes what the language user can do regardless of where, when or how the language was acquired

There is a very clear distinction between what is learned given (Performance) and what is acquired (Proficiency). Many language teachers err in believing that Performance of practiced grammar leads to Proficiency, when in fact, practicing takes away from acquisition. A more current misinterpretation is that we can’t focus on Proficiency because it only exists in a real-world non-classroom setting. I don’t agree. Since we don’t “practice,” or “learn” any language in my classroom, the experience is genuine. Students are really real people in a real classroom using real language in an unforced way. It’s all about that context. We’re keeping it…real.

(Perf) Practiced: Tasks are derived from the language functions and vocabulary that learners have practiced or rehearsed but which are applied to other tasks within familiar contexts
(Prof) Spontaneous: Tasks are non-rehearsed situations

Most, if not all, real world situations are non-rehearsed situations (Proficiency). Who would choose to practice these situations?

(Perf) Familiar Content and Context: Content based on what was learned, practiced, or rehearsed; all within a context similar but not identical to how learned
(Prof) Broad Content and Context: Context and content are those that are appropriate for the given level

This description of Performance hearkens back to that old question of “is this going to be on the test?” If compelling content in the context of the classroom is appropriate (but not practiced), you are dealing with Proficiency.

(Perf) Demonstrated performance: To be evaluated within a range, must be able to demonstrate the features of the domains of a given range in those contexts and content areas that have been learned and practiced
(Prof) Sustained performance across all the tasks and contexts for the level: To be at a level, must demonstrate consistent patterns of all the criteria for a given level, all of the time

This is pretty much a summary of the two differences made throughout this document: Practice (Performance) vs. Spontaneous (Proficiency). This tells me that you need multiple pieces of evidence to arrive at a consistent display of Proficiency.

Since most real-world communication is unrehearsed, we have little use of Performance as Language Professionals in classrooms. Pedagogically, the point of assessing Performance is to determine the extent to which students can recall, produce, and manipulate what was learned in class (e.g. certain grammatical structures, specific cultural details etc.). Traditionally, as educators we use this insight in order to adjust instruction, which is just teacher talk code for “review.” If ACTFL recognizes that the greatest influence on acquiring a language is understandability and time (p. 13), adjustments to instruction should be quite minimal since they have little effect on Proficiency. Why little effect? Language acquisition is an internal process within the student, and the only thing we can control is the quality and quantity of input. Since manipulation means very little in an unrehearsed communicative situation (even interpreting a reading), we can bypass Performance altogether. This ends up saving quite a bit of time, and eliminates unnecessary over-assessing.

Therefore, I choose to focus on Proficiency, and assess appropriately, which doesn’t mean slapping a Novice High, etc. label on every assessment (it takes time to show consistency at a Proficiency level). Some teachers don’t agree that we can assess Proficiency. If, by those accounts, I am unable to truly assess Proficiency just because I’m in a classroom context, I am still NOT assessing Performance. What am I doing if that’s the case? I have no idea. ACTFL doesn’t seem to have a term for something unrehearsed that leads to acquisition that exists in a classroom (if it’s not considered Proficiency).


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